The SONOS Wireless Music System

A few things have revolutionized the music business in the past decade — Apple's iTunes, mobile audio on smart phones with the headphone boom, followed this year by streaming audio. What was missing in the lifestyle mix was a quality delivery system for the home. One that worked easily, sounded great and was reasonably priced. Sure, Bose had a big lead. ‘Good’ sound for the masses but at a high price. The high price paid for the marketing, which was quite effective. But, it was still a ‘sell’. You could hear the significant others at Best Buy — ‘do we really need that?’! Bang & Olufsen popped in once in a while with ‘audiophile’ quality kit, but no one company had a fix on the target.

SONOS (Sonos) founder and CEO John MacFarlane foresaw the future was digital and wireless but with streaming as the eventual format of choice. Maybe not for the audiophile, at least at the time, but it was coming. That was in 2002. Today, Sonos is the mainstream brand for music delivery in a wireless/streaming world. MacFarlane and his three partners, like other visionaries, leveraged an idea into a segment leading product.

Over the decade from 2002, Sonos fine tuned the iOS and Android app that the controls the system from your smart phone and added new speakers. Sonos can be set up anywhere in the house using a variety of shapes and size speakers, including the Playbar, Sub, Play:1, Play:3 and Play:5. There are amplification solutions, too.

I knew Sonos had captured the imagination of the public when I began to see well orchestrated ads on TV and in movie houses. Sonos had done what Bose never could. Become mainstream. Growth was/is exponential. In fact, Sonos doubled its revenue from 2012 to 2013 to USD$535 million (source: Bloomberg).

The Bloomberg description of Sonos is ‘Sonos, Inc. manufactures wireless music systems for home audio applications. The company offers HiFi wireless speakers, audio components, music players, controllers, subwoofers, and sound bars that allow users to stream music wirelessly in their home with control from Android, smartphone, iPhone, and iPad. It offers its products through retailers and online retailers worldwide, as well as through its online shop. The company was founded in 2002 and is based in Santa Barbara, California. It has additional offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hilversum, the Netherlands; Beijing and Shenzhen, China; and Penang, Malaysia.'

MacFarlane expects sales to be above 1 billion 2015 Q3. Can you hear Apple licking its chops?

Remarkable numbers for anything that has the word ‘hi fi’ in it. So, how does the audiophile world and Sonos’ world intersect?

Setup

The Canadian distributor in Toronto was very generous in getting whatever setup we required out to Audiophilia West here in Victoria, BC. As I moved into our new house, so arrived the large boxes. I can imagine the excitement of people getting these slick packages with the beautifully made kit inside. We chose a ‘musical’ setup rather than 5.1 Surround Sound. Either is accomplished easily with the correct choice of speakers. My very open, west coast style living/dining/kitchen demanded a PlayBar, Sub (both these are pretty well absolutes for the best Sonos sound) and a Play:5.

PlayBar.

PlayBar.

The PlayBar went under the fireplace mounted TV, the Sub in a back corner (it's impervious to placement — you could throw it in the laundry hamper under a pile of smelly old socks and the thing would rock), and the Play:5 in the kitchen. As setup, it easily filled the large open space with its 10 foot ceiling. The time alignment between the speakers is so good that any number of speakers would have worked. Musically. We’ll leave the spatial and the stereo ‘till later.

Most everyone knows that the civilian population wants every chore done in an instant. Completely the opposite of the tried and true audiophile obsessive. As such, the Sonos system truly is plug and play. Actually, download an app, plug, press a couple of buttons, and then play. From within the app, you can add music services such as Tidal HiFi, Deezer, Google Play Music, Spotify, Rdio and a myriad of others. You can also add music libraries.

I also requested the Sonos Bridge (pictured below). This small box plugs into your router and creates a dedicated wireless network for your Sonos system. It is said to improve wireless reliability. My wireless was solid as a rock during the review period.

Other than speakers, Sonos manufactures two components -- the CONNECT (USD$399.00) which turns your stereo or home theater into a music streaming system. The CONNECT:AMP (USD599.00) turns your wired speakers into a music streaming system. No need for these two pieces for my review purposes.

No matter your setup at home, Sonos has a wireless network, streaming solution for you. And you can run 32 speakers simultaneously.

Very cool, and for a specific lifestyle, I would say there is nothing better on the market in the here and now. My brother, who happily led the way to Victoria, has a very unique home overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Mt. Baker. The Sonos system throughout his large house suits all his musical needs, whether his office wing, guest wing, living room, or as setup in his amazing home theatre space. And the sound is Sonos consistent. For my different shaped home, Sonos fits my requirements perfectly. And no matter your situation, it will for you, too.

Kit

The PlayBar is a soundbar designed by Sonos for home theatre. I used it as the primary speaker for music playback. There is a digital optical input port and two ethernet ports. The Playbar has nine speakers paired with nine Class D amplifiers. It is by far the best soundbar I have heard.

The SUB is a subwoofer which integrates itself wirelessly with other Sonos products. The two 'force-cancelling' speakers face each other within the enclosure and the system automatically adjusts audio settings. Usually not a sub fan, but the SUB is integral to a satisfying Sonos setup. I think it's Sonos' best product.

SONOS Sub. Photo credit: Wired

SONOS Sub. Photo credit: Wired

The Play:5 is a single box speaker with five drivers. It features a built-in, two-port Ethernet switch. Through the app, two Play:5s can be setup as a stereo pair.

Sound

There are so many combinations of Sonos speakers, your experiences will differ according to setup. But having heard combinations in several homes over a long period, I have a good idea of the sound concept Sonos were going for.

Considering MacFarlane and his team had little or no experience in sound design, it's remarkable that the 'Sonos Sound' is so refined and musically enticing. The four founders hired their engineers well. But the original business idea -- sit, press, and play any music without wires, fell on a lot of deaf ears. In fact, at the 2004 CES, mainstreamers passed their booth and usually asked, 'where are the wires?'. 'It comes over the internet wirelessly' was the answer. Crickets.

I love when a business idea comes together. The 2002 equation of Napster, a router in every home (eventually), broadband wireless, smartphones, followed later by music services and streaming. Wow, Sonos home run.

The 2015 result is an enviable market position. Almost like a 'chicken in every pot', a Sonos product in every (hip) home.

So, it is with great pleasure that I can relay how wonderful and vivid the sound is. And no matter my 'mode' -- lazy lump, active audiophile, obsessive compulsive, party central, whatever.

Through the prism of a tube/analog fan, the lazy lump side of me loved the ease of use and did not pine for my record cleaner, stylus brush, record weight, and fresh Nitty Gritty sleeves. The app is a doddle to use (although it could still use some more refinement in navigation) and jumping around recent releases on Tidal Hi Fi was a music reviewer's dream.

In terms of pure sound, through two stereo speakers and sub (Play:5 X 2 and SUB for less than 2K tax in) the sound easily matches the same cost made up of separates. The timbres were refined and the separation good (setup takes sometime to tweak). Where the system falls down in comparison with quality high end components matched with synergy in a treated listening room is soundstage, both width and depth. That's not to say they are not there -- the Sonos speakers employ multiple drivers tuned to give a wide soundfield from a single point source. The app will 'tune' two Play:5s to perform as two separate speakers, but I think the engineering is already in there. Trying to be all things to all men.

As such, the idea of purchasing a Sonos system for your 'stereo' might be your cup of tea if you like the sound kaleidoscopic with a seriously brilliant subwoofer. But for the gentle side of an audiophile's nature, Sonos' sound design won't last the long term. But if you only have 2K to spend, you could do a lot worse. Our setup cost Play:5 $399; PlayBar $699; SUB $699.

My setup was completely different. I have a dedicated music room for my high end system and teaching/practicing/study, and I use the main space for cooking, dining, television, writing, and general carousing. The house has a lower level, but for bedrooms, laundry room, mud room, garage, etc. It would have been easy enough to throw a couple of Play:1s in the bedrooms and enjoyed the music down there, too. It's all so easy to control from the app.

All my Sonos listening was in the main space doing any number of activities, including critical listening.

My expectations for the short term were based on other Sonos based systems I’d heard. In my house, and in this respect, the system did not disappoint. It matched the other systems note for note, phrase for phrase and in a generally exciting, vibrant sound. What has surprised me most is my acceptance of the system and its true musicality heard in the long term.

Over the months, I’ve listened to countless albums. Most of which were well known to me, even those streamed on Google Play Music and Tidal Hi Fi. The Sonos speakers easily disseminated the wheat from the chaff. Old classical bootlegs (a ton of Klemperer, Walter and Reiner) both streaming services snuck in the backdoor to boost their rep numbers sounded scratchy and awful. A vast number of the Karajan DGs sounded very familiar — lots of sheen in place of detail. And new releases recorded with care sounded incredibly detailed and much like the performers and engineered would have imagined. These discoveries, both musical and aural gave me lots of pleasure over the past six months.

For purely music review purposes, my Sonos setup left a little to be desired for pinpoint imaging. What did I expect from my setup? Interestingly, a solid soundstage was easy to capture in comparison with other Sonos setups I'd heard, with a little tweaking of the kitchen Play:5. The sexy PlayBar, with its multi array of speakers throws out a magical elixir of trickery, but not so much that a trained ear won’t catch it out trying to cover a lot of musical bases.

Conclusion

For music reviews, I turned to my music room and its cozy confines where a stereo pair can live and dance happily among the reeds and brass, strings and percussion. And they all sound in their place. But the ‘lifestyle’ magic is not there, the ease of streaming, the fantastic app, and the incredible Sub. So, you takes your choice. Somedays, I’m a serious fellow sitting glued to a gorgeous pair of Raidho Loudspeakers, others, I lounge in the wonderful sound throughout the house, where I can cook, eat, and bask in the pleasure of some pretty fine sound. Highly recommended.

Further information: Sonos